Washington, DC (CBS) - The Supreme Court has struck down limits in federal law on the overall campaign contributions the biggest individual donors may make to candidates, political parties and political action committees.
The justices said in a 5-4 vote Wednesday that Americans have a right to give the legal maximum to candidates for Congress and president, as well as to parties and PACs, without worrying that they will violate the law when they bump up against a limit on all contributions, set at $123,200 for 2013 and 2014. That includes a separate $48,600 cap on contributions to candidates.
The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, did not call into question the maximum amount an individual can donate to a single candidate or political party in a two-year election cycle -- those limits are $2,600 to a candidate, $32,400 to a national political party and $5,000 to a political committee.
On one level, the McCutcheon case is just about a few thousand of the wealthiest individuals in America, and whether they should be allowed to contribute to as many campaigns and candidates as they want. In this particular case, it's about Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, and whether he should be allowed to donate $2,600 to just 18 candidates in one election year, or 19 or 20, or more.
"With the ruling, we continue to chip away at the long entrenched status quo from the grassroots - a status quo that has kept challengers, better ideas, and new entrants to the political arena mostly locked out," McCutcheon said in a statement following the ruling. " Ensuring that citizens are able to contribute to multiple candidates or causes who share their views only provides further support to a system in which 'We the People' hold the ultimate reins of power. I commend the Supreme Court for their decision to defend our freedom."
Fred Wertheimer, founder of the nonprofit Democracy 21, defended the limits, told CBS News' Jan Crawford in October that the ability to financially influence effectively every race in the nation goes too far.
"The bottom line is you cannot allow individuals to give, and office holders to solicit, million-dollar and $2 million contributions without corrupting our political system and corrupting our democracy," he said. "The Supreme Court has never said that contributions represent free speech that cannot be limited."
Beyond its implications for the wealthy few like McCutcheon, the ruling could mark a significant shift in the way the court treats political gifts. Now that the court has knocked down overall limits, it's the first chip away at federal contribution limits since the rationale for such limits was established 40 years ago.
"If you fear deregulated politics, you're concerned about that," former Federal Election Commission commissioner Brad Smith, co-founder of the Center for Competitive Politics, told reporters before October's arguments. "If you're like us and say there's not much to show for the regulation we've had since 1974, then we welcome that development."
Eliminating aggregate limits may now set the stage for striking down all contribution limits. "At that point, we would be back to the 19th Century and the Robber Baron era," Wertheimer said, calling the court's eventual decision in McCutcheon "potentially much more dangerous than the Citizens United decision."